Branding seems to have boiled down to a little scene from Alice in Wonderland, wherein the drink has a label ‘drink me’ and the cake has the label, ‘eat me’. In branding theory, the struggle to be big, beautiful and different (in terms of a dazzling ad campaign) is assuming magnificent proportions. Everyone out there is exploring ‘out of the box ideas’ coupled with ‘out of the box execution’ and ‘mind-blowing media spends’. But what if the product just doesn’t live up to the sizzling campaign, for which you are spending all your resources? What if the advertising just pushes the consumer’s expectations to a point where the product just cannot fulfil them? Are agencies free to refuse the dream campaign if they realise that it is just not good enough?
Reminds one of the global brand ‘SnackAttack’, a chocolate-filled cookie that made a sharp debut in the British consumer products circle, thanks to a splendid advertising campaign. The tragedy was that once the consumers sampled the product, they didn’t venture for it again. Clearly, the advertising had raised expectations to such a hilt that consumers just felt let down by another ‘me too’ product. This leads us to the conclusion that great advertising is in fact the best bet in putting out a bad product.
The creative perspective
Says Josy Paul, Head, RMG David, “There are two aspects to the case. If we are talking about a product that has ill effects on consumers, the agency does have moral obligations to take a stand on such a product. So if it’s a gutka brand that wants to disguise itself as something else, the onus is on you to refuse. But if we are talking about new launches (more so, when these are edible), there is absolutely no way that the agency can take a call on the merits of the product. Taste for instance, is based entirely on individual preference. Or if it’s a new channel that you are promoting, you have no means of knowing how it’s going to be perceived by consumers. Either way, your job is to give birth to a fantastic ad campaign and get the required trials. Top-notch advertising is what you are really paid to deliver. Just because it’s a mediocre or less than mediocre product, you can’t really produce advertising that‘s pallid or unpresentable.”
Paul adds, “In the first case scenario, the onus is on the agency. In the second case, the onus is not on the creative community, but on the brand community. Yet RMG David in its pirate tradition has refused to take on campaigns, where the product is not exciting enough. After all, the quickest way to kill a bad product is with great advertising. And we don’t want to deliver anything but for great advertising.”
Pratap Suthan, National Creative Director, Grey, asserts that the subject is fairly a grey area, one which requires much mulling over. He states, “Great advertising is indeed the safest bet when it comes to killing a bad product. If you communicate right and make all the right noises, consumers will inevitably be drawn to your product. That’s what advertising is for – to get the consumers to sit upright and notice what you have to offer. But as consumers make a beeline for your product, and you fail to deliver…well, it sure spells suicidal for the brand. I think that the onus here is on agencies to be direct and forthright with clients. If you feel that a product spells disaster, don’t take it on and spin a dream around it. If you have some inkling that the product is bad while going into the deal, don’t accept the assignment.”
Over to the marketers
Marketers have their own take on the subject. JH Mehta, Vice President, Marketing, Kwality Walls, says, “It’s a classic defence used by the creative community when having to justify why a big creative idea or execution had the exact opposite effect than was hoped for: product did not move, although the advertising account invariably did. I have to consider the corollary of this phrase too- If nothing kills a bad product, quicker than great advertising, what about the permutation of great products and bad advertising? And taking this even one step further, what qualifies as bad advertising?”
Aloke Bannerjee, Country Head, Bombay Dyeing, states categorically, “Great advertising, can it really kill a mediocre product? I think that we are giving advertising folks too much of credit here. Advertising is essentially a small part of a large marketing mix; you cannot make or break a product through advertising alone. There are several other parameters to be considered, like pricing, below the line, PR and so on. Plus, does it really mean that a mediocre product really deserves mediocre or less than mediocre advertising? No marketer would label his product as ‘mediocre’ in the first place. Secondly, we are paying ad agencies to do a good job, not a mediocre one.”
Communications strategy is the art of deciding which messages to emphasise. Truth telling is an integral part of a brand. The premise is that if you exaggerate, your target audience could well chuck the product out on account of it not living up to the fiction. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to peddle the truth, than to peddle self-relinquishing fiction.